Cold War, a love story about music and musicians, is for people who found A Star Is Born way too cheerful and optimistic.
It’s pretty downbeat, but it’s also another black-and-white (subtitled) marvel from Pawel Pawlikowski. Like his Ida, it’s set, at the outset, in Poland, a few years after WWII, where government-sponsored musicians are recording the folks songs of rural people, gathering material and talent for a formal show that will tour the country.
Composer/recruiter Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) spots a prodigy named Zula (Joanna Kulig) who may not be an authentic folk singer but is an authentic talent, and also lovely, and so begins a tumultuous affair that Pawlikowski follows across Europe and across decades. It’s a story with epic sweep but miniature stature — the entire movie runs just 88 minutes. It’s as though somebody shrink-wrapped Doctor Zhivago.
The result is something that lacks a conventional romantic arc, but captures something else Pawlikowski is looking for — the fractured, episodic nature of lives (and cultures) uprooted by war, communism, even freedom.
Zula and Wiktor are chafing under communist rule, and Pawlikowski shows us why in a droll scene of a Polish bureaucrat, obviously sucking up to Moscow, who suggests that in addition to folk music, the troupe start performing songs about land reform and the importance of strong leadership — at their next performance, banners of Stalin are unfurled, and Zula is “encouraged” to dance with the troops.
The lure of a less oppressive life is strong, though the lovers take separate routes to find it — through Berlin, Sicily, Yugoslavia, Paris, and also through other relationships, marriages. They unite and separate without warning or apparent logic, restive and rootless. They finally convene in Paris, where we come to understand that displaced expats like Zula and Wiktor are free to be anything but what they were.
Cold War illustrates this ingeniously and evocatively, by shadowing the journey of Zula and Wiktor with the parallel journey of a song, “Dwa Serduska” (“Two Hearts,” I’m told). We hear it first as a folk tune sung by a peasant girl, then rearranged by Wiktor as something orchestrated and more formal. In Paris, Zula turns chanteuse and delivers a jazz version, then a French-language version for vinyl. Each time it gets more refined, but it ultimately loses something — what a musician might call soul. Zula wonders if she’s losing hers.
The movie starts in the ruin of a rural church, bombed out during WWII — by the Nazis or the Allies, it hardly matters. The eyes of a defaced Madonna stare out. The movie also ends there, and Pawlikowski suggests that what has been ripped away from a culture by the war, by ideologies, or simply the passing of time, sometimes cannot be replaced. Here the movie reminds us a bit of Ida, in which a nun on the verge of taking her vows leaves the convent to sample what the wide world has to offer, and finds it wanting.
Both movies affirm that nobody — apologies to Alfonso Cuarón — shoots in black-and-white like Pawlikowski. He manages to capture a richness, variety, and expressiveness in two colors that most movies fail to find in an unlimited palette. Watching his camera search the inky reaches of a Paris jazz club to find Kulig’s haloed visage, you realize why blondes were so popular before Technicolor.
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowsi. With Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, and Borys Scyz. Distributed by Amazon.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 mins.
Parents guide: R (sex)